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A "perfect storm" of crises leads to increase in homelessness in New West

City aiming to complete a new homelessness action strategy in early 2022
New Westminster will develop a new homelessness action strategy. It will replace the 2006 strategy.

The City of New Westminster has taken action to reduce homelessness in the past – and it’s hopeful it can make progress to address the “significant increase” in people who have no homes.

On Sept. 13, city council directed staff to begin work on a new homelessness action strategy. City staff will complete the strategy, with the assistance of the New Westminster Homelessness Coalition Society, the Community Action Network and the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning.

John Stark, the city’s supervisor of community planning, said the March 2020 homeless count enumerated 41 unsheltered and 82 sheltered homeless people in New Westminster.

As is the case with all homeless counts, he said it’s likely a significant undercount of the true extent of the unsheltered homeless population because it misses youth and individuals who are couch surfing or living temporarily with family and friends.

“In April 2020, BC Housing conducted a survey of service providers, and based on this survey, estimated the size of the unsheltered homeless population at about 50 people,” he told council. “Since the count, and as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is evidence that the numbers of unsheltered homeless have significantly increased.”

Stark said a reduction in shelter capacity due to physical distancing requirements is one of the factors that has contributed to the increase. As an example, he said the Cliff Block was able to accommodate 30 people before the pandemic, but that’s been reduced to 16.

“When we take this on a regionwide basis, we can see this being a significant reduction in shelter capacity,” he said. “Also, the pandemic has impacted employment and income. This has contributed to mental health and substance misuse issues.”

Because of fears of virus transmission, Stark said some family members and friends have been reluctant to accommodate people on a temporary basis.

“When we look at the pandemic and we take all things into consideration – the housing affordability crisis, the overdose epidemic and such – it is the perfect storm,” he said. “We are looking at a pandemic, an affordability crisis and also an overdose epidemic; so, very concerning and unprecedented.”

Stark outlined a variety of initiatives the city has taken in response to the increased numbers of unsheltered homeless, such as: establishing a COVID-19 at-risk and vulnerable populations task force to address the essential needs of food-insecure and unsheltered people; setting up laundry and shower programs; providing socks, underwear, jackets, coats and boots to the unsheltered; and creating a City of New Westminster interdepartmental working group on homelessness to address business and resident complaints related to homelessness and other social issues.

Other actions include working with BC Housing and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to develop additional emergency shelter capacity and new supportive.

A new strategy

Emily Huang, the city’s affordable housing analyst, said the new homelessness action strategy will provide a vision and a plan for addressing homelessness and its related issues for the next five years.

Huang said the new strategy, and the needs assessment that it’s based on, will: identify needs and gaps and inform action interventions; assist the city and the faith-based and non-profit sector in the applying for grants from foundations and senior levels of government; facilitate collaboration and partnership building; and prioritize actions and inform advocacy, including with the senior levels of government.

Coun. Chinu Das she’s admired how staff have worked to address homelessness, but a more comprehensive plan is needed.

“The problem is bigger than what we are able to right now, and it is stressing not only our resources and staffing, and our ability to move forward, but also stressing the non-profit and other organizations that are working with us,” she said. “And that is reflected on the streets of our town, especially on businesses and residences in the downtown area.”

While she’s looking forward to the development of a new homelessness action strategy, Das questioned whether it will be able to change the overall picture, which has been impacted by reduced capacity in shelters because of COVID.

Stark said the city took coordinated action to address homelessness after developing the 2006 strategy. He noted the city worked with BC Housing on the creation of new emergency shelter and supportive housing beds in New Westminster.

“Between 2008 and 2014, we had a 53% reduction in unsheltered homelessness. It shows you, with regards to coordinated action, what can be done,” he said. “One thing that’s come up, and it’s come up several times, is this is not a municipal issue. It’s a provincial issue and it’s also a regional issue, and we need to work with neighbouring municipalities to address this issue and also the senior levels of government.”

Stark said it’s important to recognize that homelessness has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the housing affordability crisis and the overdose epidemic.

“So, it’s going to be challenging,” he said, “but I think, having a plan which we can use to access funding, which we can use to ensure better interventions are making a difference, and also use it to advocate for additional funding and supports from senior levels of government will be important.”

Phase 1 of the plan (information gathering) will be done from October to December 2021 and Phase 2 (development of the strategy) will take place from January to March 2022. Phase 3 (monitoring and evaluation) is set to take place from April 2022 onwards.

“I was really happy to see the timeline associated with this,” said Coun. Nadine Nakagawa. “It has a fairly tight timeline because obviously we need to get to the action.”

Nakagawa said she hopes the strategy will include something she thinks was missing from the previous strategy – disaggregated data that considers issues such as race, age and disabilities.

“We know that Indigenous people are overrepresented in homeless counts. We know that Black families are more likely to live at lower income rates,” she said. “But also disabilities; we know that the disability rates have been very low for a very long time, meaning that a lot people living with disabilities are more precarious.”

Nakagawa said an increasing number of seniors have found themselves homeless in recent years.

“I think we need that kind of analysis and data built into the strategy so we can talk about that nuance,” she said.

Coun. Jaimie McEvoy said New Westminster reduced homelessness by half at one time, but the city can’t address the issue on its own. He said mental health care needs to be on part with physical health in the health-care system and addiction treatment needs to be available on demand.

“We can certainly look at what we can do with our civic powers, and we can advocate for those things and work with our citizens, work with our neighbours to try and come up with something better,” he said. “Because, until we have some of those other things, the conditions that create homelessness still exist. We need to address those in the long-term as well.”

Mayor Jonathan Cote said there was a time when he would have considered the city’s efforts to reduce the number of people who were homeless in New West as one of his proudest accomplishments.

“In many cases, when homelessness was increasing in the Metro Vancouver region, it was actually declining here in the City of New Westminster from a lot of hard work from all levels of government and non-profits and simply getting more housing available in our community,” he said. “But it’s been difficult in the last couple of years. I have seen the trend go back in the other direction and I see the increase in the community.

According to a staff report, the city starting seeing signs of increasing homeless in 2019, at which time the city and the New Westminster Homelessness Coalition began working on a new homelessness needs assessment, which will help inform the new homelessness action strategy. While work on that assessment was put on hold when the pandemic it, work resumed on the assessment in early 2021.

“It’s difficult to see vulnerable residents suffering and really difficult spots in our community. No doubt we have also been hearing concerns from the local business districts and concerned residents too about the increase in homelessness,” Cote said. “I think it is certainly really timely that we engage in this work.”

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